Fruitvale Station (US - BD RA)
Jonathan checks out Ryan Coogler's directorial debut about Oscar Grant...
Filmmaker Ryan Coogler makes his feature directorial debut with this drama centered on the tragic shooting of Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan), a vibrant 22-year-old Bay Area father who was senselessly gunned down by BART officers on New Year’s Day in 2009, and whose murder sent shockwaves through the nation after being captured on camera by his fellow passengers. (From the Anchor Bay synopsis)
Coogler's take on the final day in Oscar Grants life is not pulling punches. The movie opens with the actual cellphone footage of the tragic shooting that took place at Fruitvale Station on New Year's Day. Flashback to the beginning of the day, and we're now in Oscar Grant's shoes, as portrayed by Michael B. Jordan. Coogler uses a raw cinematic style that works to the story's advantage and adds a convincing layer of realism. At times it reminded me of Aronofsky's approach to The Wrestler. Unfortunately that realism is sometimes betrayed by a screenplay full of contrivances. The script could be accused of trying to make Oscar Grant too likable before we have to witness his untimely death. At times it can feel manipulative, but aside from two frustrating scenes I found that this depiction of Oscar's life was fair and compelling.
Coogler's depiction of Oscar paints him as a work in progress. He is involved in selling drugs and recently lost his job for not being responsible. The screenplay ensures that we see he had flaws, but that he is struggling to improve himself. On this same day he fights to get his job back (unsuccessfully) and tries to give up his drug involvement. The other flawed sides of his character come out in flashbacks where he was in jail before. In these flashbacks his mother, played well by Oscar winner Octavia Spenser, deals out her form of tough love to a son who needs it.
When the movie wants us to love Oscar Grant as a person, it sometimes overreaches. This is most evident in a scene that took place during a part of the day where nobody was sure what Oscar was up to. The filmmakers decided to have him witness a dog being hit by a car, and then to cry over that dog's corpse. It points and says how sad, and tries to make you love Oscar for being so emotional about it. It's an exclamation mark where something more subtle should have been. Another contrivance that just made me angry is later in the film, before Oscar leaves his daughter with a babysitter to go party with friends on New Years Eve. His daughter hears fireworks outside and mistakes them for gunshots, then begs Oscar not to leave because she is afraid he will be shot. The goal was likely some sad kind of irony, but it lands awkwardly and feels very forced.
Contrivances aside, the movie achieves its ultimate goal. If you're like me, you'll like Oscar and you will be dreading the final moments of the story. Michael B. Jordan, who earned my support early in The Wire, is great in the role. Much of the movie's emotional impact rests on his shoulders, and he carries it. When its all said and done, the final moments of Oscar Grant's life are horrifying to witness. More often than not, Coogler makes Oscar Grant feel like a real person in Fruitvale Station, and it is difficult to walk out of the movie unaffected.
As I mentioned in the review, Coogler and cinematographer Rachel Morrison opt for a rough, down to earth look at the story. It reminded me of The Wrestler, so I was not shocked to learn that Fruitvale Station was also shot in 16 mm. The look suits the material wonderfully, but those looking for a clean HD presentation will want to look elsewhere. The visual style and format don't lend themselves to eye catching color. You'll immediately notice the heavy grain, which is expected of the format. Anchor Bay's transfer is strong. Contrast levels look right and compare accurately with my memory of seeing it at the theater. Digital artefacts are not a concern, though I didn't notice some very occasional pixellation in the darker areas of the picture. You would have to be looking for it to find it.
The low key visual style is matched by a modest audio track. Though it sports a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track, it doesn't take full advantage of the format. While the audio never has any real dynamic range or fancy directional effects, the 5.1 setup is used quite frequently for effective ambient noise or to capture actions happening off screen. You can hear other activities taking place in the grocery store. A crowded train on New Years Eve appropriately fills every channel with extra noise and chatter. These little touches go a long way. Overall the track seemed a bit quiet, but once I turned the volume up a bit I never had to make any further adjustments. Voices aren't as crisp and distinct as high value products, but its never too difficult to make out the dialogue. There's nothing fancy here, but the track serves its purpose and faithfully recreates the theatrical experience I recall.
Fruitvale Station: The Story of Oscar Grant (HD, 21:27) is a moving if somewhat scattershot look at the real Oscar Grant's life and how the filmmakers sought to interpret it. Producer Forest Whitaker talks about how fellow producer Nina Yang Bongiovi had a student - Ryan Coogler - she wanted him to meet, they met once and talked for a while, and Whitaker greenlit the movie right then and there. There is a lot of loving praise toward Coogler from his peers in this featurette. Some authors, celebrities, and civil rights activists are interviewed about the incident and offer reasonable insights. There are cast and filmmaker interviews sprinkled throughout as well. Q&A With Cast and Filmmakers (HD, 27:29) is a post screening session with director Ryan Coogler, actors Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz, and Octavia Spencer. Producers Forest Whitaker and Nina Yang Bongiovi are also present. They talk at length about what drew them to the project and what it meant to them.
Though a few contrivances hurt Fruitvale Station's honest ambitions, I have no doubt that the filmmakers and first time director Ryan Coogler have nothing but good intentions and respect for their subject. The raw presentation and a strong performance from Michael B. Jordan make the pain and senselessness of Oscar Grant's death more tangible than any news article ever could. This Blu-ray release captures the same AV experience I had seeing this movie in theaters. There's only a couple of extras, but they're good ones.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Jonathan Hogberg
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian
Release Date: 14th January 2014
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English
Subtitles: English, English SDH, Spanish
Extras: Fruitvale Station: The Story of Oscar Grant, Q&A With Cast and Filmmakers, DVD Copy
Easter Egg: No
Director: Ryan Coogler
Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz, Octavia Spencer
Length: 85 minutes
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